Opus 233 (November 10, 2008). In no little consternation, we report that Dick Tracy may be doomed and the nation’s most celebrated caricaturist is going blind. On a somewhat lesser scale of disaster, Berkeley Breathed annoys one more time and the DailyCartoonist tallies ten casualties in editoonist ranks since May. We also briefly survey how the Election was “reported” in strips and editoons. Here’s what’s here, in order by department:
POST-ELECTION IN THE COMICS
Doonesbury’s prescience, IDW’s Obama book outsells the McCain volume
NOUS R US
Peanuts encourages voting, Stalin’s cartoonist dies, literary classics in graphic novels
DICK TRACY’S DEATH TRAP
Another Journalist Laid Off
BREATHED’S LAST ANNOYANCE
NEWSPAPER COMICS VIGIL
How Strips Reported the Election Outcome
More Response to the Election
Editoonist Ranks Shrink by Another Ten
Ted Rall Writes the New York Times Book Review
GETTING SERIOUS BETWEEN FRIENDS
Bell-Lundy’s Strip Tackles Domestic Abuse
Name-Dropping & Tale-Bearing
Jim Scancarelli’s Inky Adventure
What Rhymes with Orange
THE NAST BOOK REVIEWED
Orphan Works Act Authorizes Theft
LIGHTS OUT FOR FAMED CARICATURIST
And our customary reminder: don’t forget to activate the “Bathroom Button” by clicking on the “print friendly version” so you can print off a copy of just this installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned. Without further adieu, then, here we go—
IN OUR LIFETIME
A More Perfect Union
Blow ye the trumpet, blow!
The year of jubilee is come!
All Americans can be proud of the history that was made yesterday—a triumph of the American story. —Attributed to George W. Bush, who uttered it on November 5 but who, almost surely, didn’t write it.
Rosa sat so Martin would walk; Martin walked so Barack could run.—Saying in the ’Hood
There is one thing we can proclaim today, without question: that the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America means that “The Ultimate Color Line” has, at long last, been crossed. It has been crossed by our very first postmodern Race Man, a man who embraces his African cultural and genetic heritage so securely that he can transcend it, becoming the candidate of choice to tens of millions of Americans who do not look like him.—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Scholar
At his blog, Keith Knight, a black cartoonist who produces an autobiographical comic strip The Knight Life, lists “Things I’m Looking Forward to in an Obama Presidency”: My newborn, mixed-race kid is gonna have a prez that looks like him. When teachers tell their students that they can grow up to be president, the black kids will believe it too. The Hall of Presidents at Disneyland and Disney World.
It is something that has never happened in the history of the world. Barack Obama—an African American, a not-so-long-go despised racial minority and therefore second-class citizen—was declared the 44th President of the U.S. at about 11 pm Eastern Standard Time on at least three tv networks.
It could have happened only in America.
I never thought I would live to see it. But I thrill that I did and make a joyful noise.
Because it could happen only in America, it validates the promise of America.
A long way yet to go perhaps, but—oh! how far we’ve come!
And now, what I wrote (or revised) before 11 p.m. Tuesday, November 4.
Breathless Blitzer, he of the Gatling gun delivery on CNN News, was announcing Obama ahead in New Hampshire with 1% –ONE PERCENT—of the vote in at 7 pm EST on Tuesday, November 4. Here at the Rancid Raves Intergalatic Wurlitzer, we weren’t quite so precipitous. But we could have predicted the winner of the Whole Enchilada the night before based upon the infallible record of the sports folk at ESPN. The Redskins lost Monday night, and every time they’ve lost on the Monday before Election Day, the party out-of-power has won. Hence, Obama would win. But on Tuesday, network tv-news, having scheduled an entire evening for election coverage, was reluctant to end the contest. At 10 pm Eastern Standard Time, several hours after the polls had closed in most states along the eastern seaboard, no one was willing to call the outcome for Virginia, North Carolina, or Florida. NBC had called Pennsylvania and Ohio for Obama, and early guessworkers had announced that if McCain didn’t take Pennsylvania, he was done. Or, if he didn’t take Pennsylvania, he had to take four other key states—Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio. By either of these measures, the 2008 Election was over. Yet it dragged on, channel by channel.
On the funnies pages of the nation’s newspapers, at least one prognosticator had the conviction of his expectations: Garry Trudeau produced the post-Election Day November 5 release of Doonesbury a week or so in advance of its publication date and fearlessly pronounced Obama the winner. In the strip, a group of soldiers in Iraq celebrate “the first African-American president in history.” A few of Trudeau’s client papers weren’t quite so sure and phoned Trudeau’s syndicate, Universal Press, to complain and ask for a substitute strip. Trudeau picked out several strips for the weasely papers who weren’t comfortable going out on a limb. But the cartoonist was resolute and not concerned that he might be wrong, according to Andrew Burmon at Salon’s War Room blog. Wrote Burmon: “Trudeau told the Los Angeles Times that polling data gives McCain a 3.7% chance of victory. ‘There's a greater risk that their presses will break down on election day.’ Tucker Bounds, a McCain spokesman, was unamused. He said the McCain campaign ‘hope[s] the strip proves to be as predictive as it is consistently lame.’ Well,” finished Burmon, “there’s always Family Circus.”
The L.A. Times decided it wouldn’t run the strip on its release date. "In the interest of accuracy,” the paper’s editors said, “it would be best to wait to see the results of the Election." They planned to print the Wednesday November 5 strip on Thursday in the event of an Obama win. If he lost, the Times would print repeats until Friday. At the Hartford Courant, features editor Naedine Hazell, laughed off the fuss: “It’s a comic,” she said. “I don’t think people necessarily expect accuracy in comics. There’s all sorts of wack stuff in comics. I don’t think Snoopy actually flies his doghouse either.” The Courant, the Associated Press reported, would run the whole week’s worth of strips.
As it happened, so did the L.A. Times. The Doonesbury prophecy story broke on Saturday before the Election, and when the paper’s readers learned the Times planned to dodge the bullet, they scoffed en masse. The Times caved and ran the strip on its release date. The Times was right. And so was Trudeau. We’re running the strip in our Newspaper Comics Vigil department, where you can readily see that Trudeau’s perspicacity is matched by his satiric insight.
Elsewhere in Election News: Sarah Palin and her tortured syntax in search of meaning returned to the wild of Alaska, where, doubtless, she found comfort in the lingering fate of the state’s senior senator, Ted Stevens, a convicted felon, who appeared, by a narrow margin, to be on the cusp of being re-elected. It will take days, we’re told, to complete the count. The fate of so-called law-breakers in California wasn’t as happy as, possibly, Stevens’: an amendment permitting same sex marriage was defeated, throwing into doubt the thousands of gay nuptials held over the last six months or so in the wake of the state’s courts’ decision that such unions were legal. At the other end of the country, the U.S. Supreme Court started deliberating about whether Fuck and Shit can be pronounced aloud on tv between the hours of 6 and 10 pm in contravention of the FCC policy. The hours between 6 and 10 pm are “family hours,” the FCC has determined—but only in the Eastern Time Zone. In the simulcast Midwest, “family hours” fall between 5and 9 pm. Presumably, the FCC, in its infinite wisdom, has determined that children along the eastern seaboard stay up later than children in the Midwest. In South Dakota, the good citizens, models of midwestern morality, rejected a law against abortion. And in California, voters approved an amendment requiring bigger cages for chickens, gratifying Patrick McDonnell at Mutts. And that, surely, is enough politics for the season—politics outside the comics, I mean. For a glimpse of the Election inside comics, scroll down to Newspaper Comics Vigil.
WE NOT ONLY COULD, BUT WE DID
Elect Barack O’Bama the 44th President of the U.S.
ICv2 reports, in an enviable turn of phrase, that now that the election is over, the results are in. “Sales on IDW's Barack Obama biography comic beat those on the John McCain version handily, by a 59% to 41% margin, according to an IDW spokesperson. Those numbers are based on sell-in to direct market comic retailers, which can serve as a close proxy for actual sales to consumers. That margin appears to be wider than the popular vote percentages, which may reflect a different political composition for comic fans than for the American population, or just the desire of comic fans to collect the comic biography” of the candidate presumed to be the eventual winner. Obama had been leading in the polls for a good while at the time most of the funnybooks were being purchased.
NOUS R US
All the News That Gives Us Fits
Joining in the electoral pranksterism, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts characters abetted Rock the Vote to encourage trips to the polls on the appropriate day. Said Jeannie Schulz, the cartoonist’s widow, quoted in USA Weekend: “He turned everything into a joke. So we have Charlie Brown as spokesman for the Wishy-Washy party. That’s what Sparky would say he was. For a while, he was a ‘declines to state,’ which means you’re not a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent.” At peanutsrocksthevote.com in the weeks before Election Day, engaged citizens could vote for Snoopy, Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, or Sally for President. Just practicing.
Josef Stalin’s favorite cartoonist, Boris Yefimov, died in early October, just two days after his 109th birthday. Yes, odd as it is to contemplate, Stalin liked cartoons. They were, for one thing, highly effective tools for propagandizing in a largely illiterate country. (And they still are today in other countries with unlettered populations.) Although Yefimov was initially a passionate supporter of Stalin’s rival, Leon Trotsky, the cartoonist survived Trotsky’s fall from grace, saith The Week (October 17). And after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, Yefimov was the leading cartoonist of “the Great Patriotic War. ... One Yefimov effort depicted wounded and retreating Wehrmacht soldiers carrying a coffin marked ‘Myth of the Invincibility of the German Army.’ Another showed a shrunken Hitler as a barrel-organ grinder. Yefimov’s lampoons so infuriated the Fuhrer that he vowed to shoot the cartoonist when he captured Moscow. But Yefimov was undaunted: he’d rather confront an angry Hitler, he told friends, than a disappointed Stalin.” After Stalin’s death in 1953, Yefimov wasn’t quite as influential, but “he became something of a national treasure, regaling visitors for decades with his memories of his Soviet masters.”
The most recent issue of The Council Chronicle, the newsletter of the National Council of Teachers of English, carries a full-page ad from Classic Comics, extolling the forthcoming array of “graphic novel” interpretations of Shakespeare’s Henry V and Macbeth, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, some of which have arrived at comic book versions elsewhere ere now. A manga version of Macbeth, for instance, just crossed my desk from Amulet Books, apparently a division of Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Adapting a play to graphic novel form is the easiest sort of revamping: the speeches are already written, and the action blocked. The only creative hurdle to get over is length: presumably, the graphic novel version requires some abridgement of the original. In the case of the Amulet Macbeth, however, several other modifications have taken place: the action is now set in what appears to be ancient samurai Japan, and MacDuff is a fearsome warrior with four arms. The Bard would blanch.
IS DICK TRACY FACING HIS FINAL DEATH TRAP?
An American Icon’s Fate Being Pondered
Could it happen? Could Chester Gould’s cleaver-chinned cop be turned out to pasture? Could the yellow fedora be hung on a hook and Tracy disappear forever from newspaper comics? The shame of it is—it could happen.
Dick Locher, a Tribune Media Services syndicated political cartoonist who also writes and draws the iconic police procedural comic strip Dick Tracy, recently spoke a little wistfully about retirement. He was being interviewed in August by Sandye Voight at the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque, Iowa—Locher’s childhood hometown—in connection with the opening of an exhibit of his editorial cartoons at the Dubuque Museum of Art. “My 10,000th cartoon is close,” Locher said. “There are other hills to climb, and it’s been a great run. I’m looking forward to the retirement cake.”
Rumor has it that Locher could be blowing out the candles on that cake at the end of the year. And where does that leave Tracy? No one will say anything for attribution—a journalistic custom as new as Tracy is eternal—but the rumor is that TMS is considering the possible cessation of the strip’s syndicated run. Maybe Tracy will continue in a series of graphic novels. Maybe not. Maybe TMS will do the right thing and find a new steward for its world-renowned comic strip creation. (And if you want to be reminded of why Dick Tracy is an American icon, re-visit Harv’s Hindsight and “Chester Gould and the Morality Play of Law and Order” which we posted here in the fall of 2001.)
Gould retired from his creation in 1977 after 46 years 2 months and 21 days at the helm. (He liked to rattle off the years, months and days). The strip was continued by mystery writer and Tracy fan Max Allan Collins, who wrote it, and Gould’s assistant, Rick Fletcher, who drew it for several years until he died; then Locher, who had assisted Gould on the strip 1957-1961, took on the drawing assignment in 1983. In 1993 Collins was forced off the strip, and Mike Kilian, a journalist and novelist, began plotting the tales. Since Kilian’s death in late 2005, Locher has written as well as drawn the strip. But Locher’s first love is, I suspect, editorial cartooning. After parting from Gould in 1961, Locher set up his own art agency in Chicago, operating it until 1972 when he was hired as editorial cartoonist to replace the retiring Joe Parrish at the Chicago Tribune, where he earned a Pulitzer in 1983. And he has continued producing political cartoons for syndication by TMS since his retirement from the paper several years ago.
Talking to Voight, Locher said of political cartoonists: “We don’t character assassinate: we character exaggerate. We put everyone under a magnifying glass. We’re the towel-snappers of journalism. We watch the battle from the hillside, and when it’s over, we run down and shoot the wounded.”
He does four cartoons a week for syndication. “Ideas a like grapes,” he said, “—they come in bunches but don’t last.” The more volatile the cartoon, the more phone calls he gets. “They question my eyesight and my brain,” he said. But that’s part of the job assignment: stirring up controversy, provoking thought and comment. “If you go down the middle of the road,” Locher says, “you get hit by cars on both sides. Being an editorial cartoonist is like the blind javelin thrower at the Olympics: we don’t win a lot of awards, but we keep the crowd alert,” he continued, adding: “You’re not a cartoonist if you don’t get any death threats.”
But Locher’s bellicosity is deceiving. His editoons are tough-minded and hard-hitting as well as funny, but in person, Locher is soft-spoken and somewhat bemused by the shenanigans taking place all around him. And he never seems to raise his voice in anger, no matter how severely he may be provoked. He is, in short, one of the last genuine gentlemen of the ungentlemanly profession, full of years and wit, reason and compassion. And talent.
A Naperville, Illinois resident, Locher paints and sculpts when not cartooning and was inducted into the Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame in neighboring Aurora last spring. A month-long display of his work, including bronzes as well as political cartoons and Tracy strips, opened November 3 at the North Central College’s new Schoenherr Art Gallery under the banner, “The Art of Dick Locher—Dick Tracy, Political Cartoons and Beyond.” And Locher has offered to create a bronze sculpture of Tracy for Naperville’s Century Walk Corporation, which has placed around the city’s downtown over 30 pieces of art, including several Dr. Seuss sculptures. Locher’s bronze Tracy was originally designed for Woodstock, Illinois, where Gould lived most of his life and where the Gould-Tracy Museum was until just a few months ago, when it closed for lack of funding.
Locher is proud of his tenure on the strip—keeping the icon alive. “You say Dick Tracy to anybody in the United States, and they know what you’re talking about,” he once told me. “They may not have read all the strip, but they know who Dick Tracy is. Like Kodak. Like Kleenex. You might not use the product, but you know what it is. It’s a weighty, hefty thing,” he concluded: “It’s like if someone took Grant Woods’ ‘American Gothic’ and made a comic strip out of it. You’ve got to protect it.”
But now, it seems, Tracy is in need of protection. He’s in trouble. Death threats for the detective are scarcely unusual. In fact, they’re almost routine. Imagining life-threatening situations for Tracy was Chet Gould’s way of conjuring up a story. “That was his method,” Locher said, “and I give him credit for it. He’d say, ‘Let’s put Tracy’s tail in jeopardy.’ Then we’d have to figure out how to get him out.”
Well, it seems he’s in trouble again now. How do we get him out?
My alarm over the possible discontinuation of Dick Tracy would seem, I admit, to fly in the face of my attitude about legacy strips. Legacy strips, I’ve said here and elsewhere, should be phased out: when their current stewards retire or die, the strips they have produced should be permitted to expire to make room for another generation of cartoonists. So isn’t this Dick Tracy’s time? Well, no. If not, then, am I not betraying a stunningly inconsistent attitude about legacy strips? Well, maybe; but—. As Emerson, ol’ Ralph, said: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” The emphasis, for the sake of glossing the quote, must fall on “foolish” in the phrase “foolish consistency.” And I suggest that consistency in this instance would be foolish. Dick Tracy isn’t just a legacy strip: it’s American iconography. To imagine American newspaper comics sections without the possibility of a Dick Tracy strip is as outlandish an undertaking as contemplating Archie comic books drawn in an up-dated, modern manga-nized manner. Both are unthinkable. Admittedly Dick Tracy these days, running in perhaps 30 newspapers, is scarcely a presence in the funnies, but it is a possibility, which would be precluded if the strip is discontinued. And while you tear your hair over the convoluted logic of this diatribe, here’s a picture I drew once of the various creative personages involved with Tracy and his lesser-known knock-off, Jim Hardy.
ANOTHER JOURNALIST IS LAID OFF. In a final irony, one of the last stories Dave Astor wrote before he was forced out at Editor & Publisher was about Doonesbury’s reporter Rick Redfern who, like Astor, was laid off and went job hunting. “Times are so tough that even fictional journalists are getting the boot,” Astor began his story, published November 1. “But Garry Trudeau didn't stop there,” he continued.. “By mid-October, Redfern [who ostensibly worked for the Washington Post] had joined many of his real-life brethren in launching a blog—and the experience wasn't easy for the post-Post guy. For one thing, sources were definitely less interested in talking to a blogger than a print reporter.” Astor asked Trudeau if he’d received any feedback from actual bloggers. Said Trudeau: "Well, ever since I started writing about bloggers a few years back, there's been some defensiveness. No one likes to work for nothing, which most bloggers do, because narcissism then becomes the only other explanation. So it's pretty easy to touch a nerve.” But, added the cartoonist, “I find some blogs indispensable, and, of course, I host a blog myself—The Sandbox—on Doonesbury.com." The Sandbox posts dispatches from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Did Trudeau talk to any journalists jettisoned from the print realm to gather info for his fictional reporter's fate, or did he instead rely on the many depressing press reports about buyouts? "The latter," Trudeau responded by e-mail. "I do know some of the journalists who've been laid off lately, but I didn't discuss it with them as research." Wonder if Trudeau knew, as he spoke, that he was talking to one of the dispossessed who had worked a quarter of a century for the publication that now showed him the door.
Before you scroll down any further, here’s an excerpt from the afore-mentioned Sandbox at Doonesbury.com, a recent dispatch from Afghanistan: “I never thought it would get this bad. I feel ashamed to even talk about how miserable it is here while people are living in much worse conditions other places. That being said, I've lived on patrol bases before and they were heaven compared to this. ... I couldn't say at the time what it was that motivated me, and I guess it was that camaraderie and the pride I took in my work. Here, there is very little to be proud of. Sure, we patrol and that's more than many can say (not that I'm knocking people whose jobs keep them inside the wire, I'm just referencing my guys' mentality here), but it's still mind-numbing work for troops that have spent a good chunk of their lives preparing for war. That, combined with a belief that the command is ignoring us (a belief that I think is right on the money), saps morale. We are not allowed to act as highly trained soldiers. Every step is dictated by echelons above us. Ultimately, we all either become solely motivated by a desire to not have our free time interfered with by punishment, or stop being motivated all together.”
BORN TO ANNOY. The ever-irksome Berkeley Breathed went out wearing a mask of banal benevolence that could not, alas, disguise or assuage either his arrogance or his towering capacity to annoy. Opus, his Sunday-only revival of the perpetual Bloom County Outland, ended on Sunday, November 2. But it didn’t end in the funnies. To learn the end, you needed access to the Internet, the very institution that Breathed scorned when he brought Opus back, saying his pudgy penguin could be seen only in newspapers (scheming, with this ploy, to endear himself and his comic strip to newspaper editors everywhere, plagued, as they are, by the looming Web and the cripplingly high cost of newsprint). On the comics page, Steve Dallas, the world’s most ostentatious male chauvinist, enters the County Animal Shelter where Opus has been lately imprisoned. Wearing only a towel, loosely clinging to his genitals, Dallas contemplates the apparently sleeping Opus, who has been reading something that he’s hidden behind a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Steve smiles a beatific smile when he sees what Opus has in his hands—er, flippers. Then comes the first step in the annoyance: to “see the final panel,” we must repair to a computer and go to humanesociety.org/opus.
There, we learn that Opus has read himself to sleep as millions of children have before him, reading—or being read to out of—Goodnight Moon, the beloved bedtime story written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd. In the strip’s “last panel,” the book's nurturing mother rabbit sits in her rocker next to a bed where Opus lies asleep with a stuffed bunny next to him. The final words echo those in the book: "Goodnight Opus / And goodnight air / Goodnight noises everywhere."
Sigh. Breathed could not even conclude the strip with originality: he had to poach the comforting language of a superior children’s book.
Then, to compound the botheration of Breathed’s ending, we are advised that we must now go to the cartoonist’s website, BerkeleyBreathed.com, for his “final message.” And so I dutifully did. Only to discover, as had an estimated 10-15 million other Opus addicts, that the website, which normally gets 1,500-3,000 hits a day, according to Sherry Stern at latimesblogs.latimes.com, had been thoroughly overwhelmed and could not be accessed. At all. For hours.
When, several days later, I managed to arrive at Breathed’s final words, uncrashed, this is what I found: “Opus is napping. He sleeps in peace, dreaming of a world just ahead, brimming with kindness and grace and ubiquitous bow ties. Please don’t mourn him. He lives in all my children’s stories, if you look. I hope to meet you again there. Thank you, truly, for coming along with us on Opus’ 28-year journey.”
A commercial for Breathed’s children’s books. Apart from that obvious meaning is the subliminal one: Breathed clearly hopes (and who, after all, can blame him?) that he will one day produce a book that will be as everlastingly popular with young readers (and their parents) as Goodnight Moon.
How else to interpret this message? In the weeks before Opus ended, Breathed had claimed the last strip would preclude yet another revival of the flightless proboscis. He assured us that Opus could not come back from the destiny he’d arranged: “I’ll be leaving Opus in a way that it should be very clear that this time, there’s no going back home.” What? All Opus has to do is wake up—and he’s back. What a cheat.
Breathed, however—as we might expect—has another take on the so-called ending: “Opus,” the cartoonist told the L.A. Times, “is in the comforting place that would make me smile when I think of him in the years to come. I can only hope that his fans will smile too. If Opus was cuddling with tropical girls wearing coconuts, I suppose I'd smile too, but tinged with regret that those things just never last after that early giddy stage."
Of course. But it seems that early giddy stage has devolved into the final entrepreneurial phase wherein the cartoonist seeks to sell the books of his alter ego, the children’s book author. Annoying. But then, wasn’t he always? Why should we expect anything different as a finale? Plus a little wit. “A little song / A little dance / A little seltzer down your pants,” and with that, the clown exits, giggling. And we are left to wonder if he’s laughing at us.
Fascinating Footnit. Much of the news retailed in the foregoing segment is culled from articles eventually indexed at rpi.edu/~bulloj/comxbib.html, the Comics Research Bibliography, maintained by Michael Rhode and John Bullough, which covers comic books, comic strips, animation, caricature, cartoons, bandes dessinees and related topics. It also provides links to numerous other sites that delve deeply into cartooning topics. Three other sites laden with cartooning news and lore are Mark Evanier’s povonline.com, Alan Gardner’s DailyCartoonist.com, and Tom Spurgeon’s comicsreporter.com. And then there’s Mike Rhode’s ComicsDC blog, comicsdc.blogspot.com For delving into the history of our beloved medium, you can’t go wrong by visiting Allan Holtz’s strippersguide.blogspot.com, where Allan regularly posts rare findings from his forays into the vast reaches of newspaper microfilm files hither and yon.
MOTS & QUOTES
Garrsion Keillor, just before the Election: “The country longs for a president who can talk and think at the same time. We’ve been locked up with the Current Occupant for way too long, and the thought of replacing him with the Angry Old Man of the Desert and Whoopee the Ice Queen is miserable in the extreme.”
Andrew J. Bacevich in the Los Angeles Times, just after the Election: “The Age of Triumphalism has ended. The Age of Salvaging What’s Left is upon us.”
NEWSPAPER COMICS VIGIL
The Bump and Grind of Daily Stripping
We can scarcely expect that syndicated comic strip cartoonists, having wandered off the beaten and safe path into various political thickets during the fall presidential campaign, would be forever content to return to the straight and unopinionated narrow once the Election had subsided. And our expectations were happily born out. Garry Trudeau, whose daring we applauded earlier, is the only stripper who tempted fate by pronouncing a winner by name. Obama. But it is the strip’s punchline that is the mark of his genius. After taking a stab at predicting the outcome of the Election, Trudeau turned the knife to deliver one of his crowning satirical asides. Much ado has been made about Barack O’Bama’s historic achievement as the first black to make it to the White House. But Trudeau turns the achievement on its head to show that Obama’s election does not mean the end of racism, all our celebration notwithstanding. Traditional benighted racism in this country has always proclaimed that a person is black if he or she has as little as one drop of black blood in his or her lineage. So Obama is, by tradition, black. The white soldier observes, quite rightly, that Obama is half white. His observation would seem to deny and confound the tradition that determines that Obama is black. And so it does. But when the Iraqi soldier says, “You must be so proud,” he nails the racism inherent in the white guy’s comment. By noting Obama’s white lineage, the white guy seems to the Iraqi to want the “white race” to be given some credit for Obama’s accomplishment too. It’s gentle and sly, but the Iraqi’s comment highlights the racism inherent in pronouncements of Obama’s “historic” achievement. Nicely done.
The recommended way to peruse this segment of R&R is to print out the accompanying visual aid so you can have it handy as you read the picayune prose that discusses the pictures.
In Rudy Park on the right, writer Theron Heir confronts the usual dilemma of the syndicated comic strip cartoonist: the strips are produced 4-6 weeks before their publication dates, so presumably no syndicated strip could refer by name on the days immediately after the Election to whoever actually won. Some strips are now produced with a lead time as short as a week or so—Doonesbury, for example; still, the cartoonist cannot accurately reflect yesterday’s breaking news in today’s strip. Rather than ignore this predicament as Hector Cantu and his drawing partner Carlos Castellanos do in Baldo—making an ambiguous and therefore innocuous comment on the Election—Heir turns his problem into a week-long narrative that acquaints his readers with his plight and has fun with it, too. In Zippy, Bill Griffith takes the usual route, eschewing specifics. So does Heir’s drawing partner in Rudy Park, Darren Bell, who both writes and draws Candorville, but he also takes a leaf from Heir and gives it a twist by putting himself into the strip to announce his chagrin. In Prickly City (not shown here), Scott Stantis is able to avoid the issue: since his characters ran for the Presidency, they acknowledge that they lost the Election. And that is, of course, exactly right—and quite timely, too.
Interesting maneuvers, every one, but Trudeau has topped them all with both topicality and satiric comedy.
Afflicting the Comfortable and Comforting the Afflicted
One hard-wuerking wag in the inky-fingered fraternity, after contemplating the array of post-Election Day editorial cartoons at Slate, pronounced the Election a Lincoln landslide. The prevailing images were of Honest Abe smiling his approval at the election of a man whose racial predecessors he’d emancipated 145 years ago. The other dominant image deployed the Obama logo standing in for the letter ‘O’ in such words as “histOry.” A few editoonists, however, managed to steer athwart the tide, and here are a couple. Tom Toles at the Washington Post evoked the Declaration of Independence, but it’s the caption that gave his cartoon its impact: “Ratified November 4, 2008.” Pat Oliphant was one of the few who looked beyond our own shores for the significance of Obama’s election. Steve Sack at Minneapolis’ Star Tribune managed to make McCain’s undeniably handsome running, er, mate look ugly while also making her caricature recognizable—no mean feat, you might say, but you’d be wrong: it is a little mean. The other exemplar here, from Mike Luckovich at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a telling comment on the closing days of the campaign, invoking that aged adage that those who sling mud usually get more on themselves than on their targets.
APPROACHING FOUR-SCORE: More Editoonist Demises. The ranks of editorial cartoonists continue to dwindle. In mid-October, Chip Bok at the Akron Beacon Journal took a buyout, and The Oklahoman’s Jim Lange, who has been with the paper for nearly six decades, was forced to retire. Reported E&P’s Dave Astor: “Lange, 82, drew about 19,000 cartoons and illustrations since joining the Oklahoma City-based paper in 1950. He even outlasted father and son publishers at the paper, and is an original member of the 1957-founded Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.” At the AAEC website, it was noted that Lange's departure wasn't entirely his idea. "He liked what he did," said Lange's wife, Helen, "and didn't really want to retire." Lange plans to donate all of his original artwork to the history museum in Oklahoma City.
At DailyCartoonist.com, Alan Gardner compiled a list of edtioonists who have left the print medium in the three years he’s conducted his blog—a startling 29. “I did not count those who left a print job for another print job,” Gardner said. “With the exception of Tulsa World, none of the newspapers I’ve listed have replaced their lost cartoonist.” Most of the departures, sixteen of the total, occurred during 2008. And ten of those took place since AAEC’s Cullum Rogers did a tally of full-time staff editoonists in May 2008. Rogers’ total then was 101; now—as of October 13, the date of Gardner’s list—it’s 91. Here’s Gardner’s list, which notes the circumstances of each cartoonist’s departure.
Those who left in 2008: Jim Lange, Oklahoman - Involuntary early retirement; Chip Bok, Akron Plain Dealer - Voluntary Buyout; Peter Dunlap-Shohl, Anchorage Daily News - Voluntary Buyout; Jim Borgman, Cincinatti Enquirer - Voluntary Buyout; Don Wright, Palm Beach Post - Buyout/retirement; Stuart Carlson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - Forced Buyout; Dwane Powell, News Observer - Voluntarily leaves instead of taking forced part-time status; Sandy Huffaker, Syndicated - Retires from syndication; M.e. Cohen, Freelance - No longer freelancing due to medical reasons; Richard Crowson, Wichita Eagle - Laid Off; Dick Adair, Honolulu Advertiser - Laid Off; Ann Telnaes, Syndicated - Moves to animation, ends print syndication; David Catrow, Springfield News-Sun - Voluntarily left for other work; Jake Fuller, Gainesville Sun - Laid Off; Dave Granlund, MetroWest Daily News - Laid Off; Paul Combs - Leaves syndication
In 2007: Aaron Taylor, Daily Herald - Voluntary for other professional pursuits; John Kilbourn, Park Record - Resigns after plagiarism claim; Leo Garza, San Antonio Express-News, Nacho Guarache cartoonist - Laid off; Doug Marlette, Tulsa World - Killed in auto accident; Chuck Asay, Colorado Springs Gazette - Retires
In 2006: Scott Nychay, Northwest Herald - Involuntary (laid off?); Paul Combs, Tampa Tribune - Voluntary for other professional pursuits; Larry Wright, Detroit News - Buyout; Tim Menees, Post Gazette - Laid Off; Vaughn Larson, Review - Called up to Serve in Iraq War; Stacy Curtis, Times of Northwest Indiana - Laid Off; Clyde Peterson, Houston Chronicle, Retired
2005 (after October): J.P. Trostle, Herald-Sun - Leaves
Voluntarily; Kevin Kallaugher, Baltimore Sun -
In the face of the foregoing mounting catastrophe, the absence of scatological vehemence is surprising in the following letter, expressing a sentiment many of his colleagues cheer him on for, addressed to the editor of the New York Times Book Review from Ted Rall, currently President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists:
You wouldn't assign the review of a political memoir to a writer who doesn't know much about politics. You wouldn't let a food writer tackle a history book. So why didn't you respect Jules Feiffer's collection of early cartoons (Explainers) enough to get a person who knows a lot about political cartooning? David Kamp's review was favorable, and it ought to have been—Explainers is a great collection of cartoons by a highly influential artist. Kamp clearly did the best he could. But his attempt to fit Feiffer's work into a broad cultural context was as embarrassing as watching Sarah Palin discuss foreign policy. He was clearly out of his depth—which ill serves your readers.
"You also detect portents of Art Spiegelman, Mark Alan Stamaty and the entire graphic novel genre," Kamp writes. One can only wince. Hasn't he been to the graphic novel section of a bookstore? There's no such thing as a "graphic novel genre"—any more than there is a "newspaper genre." Graphic novels are a printing format—perfect-bound books with comics in them; they're novels and novellas and short strips and manga and alternative comix and war correspondency and superheroes and romance and, well, anything. Anyway, Feiffer's great influence isn't on graphic novelists. His example launched scores of wordy, multi-panel cartoonists who work in the alternative weeklies—artists like Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling, Lloyd Dangle and Tim Krieder (none of whose collections ever get reviewed in the Book Review)—as well as text-oriented comic strips from Doonesbury to Bloom County.
Let me give you a hint. When a reviewer spends two-thirds of the word count paraphrasing and quoting a book's intro, it's a hint that he or she doesn't know what the hell he or she is talking about. There are a number of fine academics who specialize in the field of political cartooning. For that matter, there are a number of working political cartoonists who—like Feiffer—are superb writers. Why not ask one to review political cartoon books for you?
Contempt for the profession of political cartooning appears to be accelerating at The Times. First is the fact that you're one of the few big-city daily newspapers that doesn't employ a staff cartoonist (or two) for your editorial pages. It isn't lost on cartoonists or their millions of fans that, if every paper followed The Times' dismal example, there wouldn't be any Feiffers.
Earlier this year, when The New Yorker's cover of the Obamas' "fist bump" sparked controversy, your reporter interviewed late-night comics and comedians. You didn't bother to interview a single political cartoonist—you know, someone who actually knows about political cartoons. "The Week of Review," which before 9/11 was a national showcase of some of the nation's more interesting political cartoons, has been shrunk down, degraded to one-panel "Laugh Lines" presented next to gags by, again, late-night tv comedians. If there is no place for serious-minded political art in the pages of The Times, how about serious book criticism? Signed: Ted Rall, President, Association of American Editorial Cartoonists
Times Book Review published the letter
on November 2, but they chopped it off after the paragraph that ends
“Why not ask ... for you?” Saith the editors when
explaining their deletion to Rall: “It's partly a question of
length, and partly one of direction— obviously the Book
Review is part of The
Times, but we don't have much
connection to the decisions that are made in the rest of the paper.
We'd prefer to publish a letter that takes us to task for what we are
responsible for.” And they asked Rall if their edited version
of the letter would be okay; he said it would be—better to run
than not to run.
GETTING SERIOUS BETWEEN FRIENDS
Sandra Bell-Lundy’s comic strip, Between Friends, is usually a gag-a-day enterprise. The strip brings together three 40-something girlfriends—Maeve, Susan, and Kim—who have known each other since high school, and they continue to pal around together and exchange gossip and advice and witticisms, very much in the mode of real-life friendships among women. Last July, the jokes began disappearing for a week or so at a time as Bell-Lundy launched a three-month episodic continuity about domestic abuse—not physical abuse, but mental cruelty, a much more insidious kind of malevolence. Maeve encounters an old highschool chum, Tamara, and gradually becomes aware that Tamara is unhappy in her marriage because of her husband Jake’s mental abuse of her. Bell-Lundy returned every so often to the storyline, and by the first week in November, the sequence seemed to reach a temporary conclusion. Maeve had convinced Tamara to leave her abusive husband, and Tamara packs a suitcase and comes to stay, temporarily, with Maeve. But when Jake comes home and realizes that his wife has left him, he guesses where Tamara is and goes to see her. Against Maeve’s advice, Tamara agrees to talk with Jake, and by the end of the conversation, a tearful and seemingly repentant Jake has convinced his wife to come back to him. Maeve, however, urges Tamara to leave her packed suitcase with her—in case she changes her mind. Tamara, who probably realizes that Jake’s self-proclaimed reformation is fleeting—perhaps he’s done this before—leaves her bag at Maeve’s.
Because Between Friends is reality-based and character-driven, it is easily transformed into something a little more serious than gossip between old friends. In an online article (the source of which, regrettably, has slipped between the pixels), Bell-Lundy elaborated on the genesis of the story: “I have been thinking about writing this storyline in Between Friends for the past few years,” she said. “A friend of mine was involved in this type of situation when she was in her early twenties. At the time, she was married with a baby, and I was still in school. We were involved in different worlds and I didn’t know what was happening. She confided in me years later. What she went through was just heart-breaking and her stories have stayed with me. She has come a long way since then. I asked my friend if I could formally interview her with the intention of writing about domestic abuse in Between Friends—not to write her life verbatim, but to use it as inspiration. I kept putting it off until one day I was writing about Maeve meeting up with an old classmate. One thing led to another and Maeve began to sense that the woman was in some kind of distress. All of a sudden, I was into the domestic violence story. Through this storyline, I hope I am able to bring some awareness to this incredibly important subject.”
The article continued: Since her own experience with domestic violence is limited, the Canadian-based cartoonist met with staff at local women’s shelters in order to gain more insight into domestic abuse. Early response to the storyline has been overwhelmingly positive. One reader wrote: “This is simply to send you a heartfelt bravo and thank you for the way you are tackling the issue of spousal abuse and of the much-needed support from friends within this context. I am a fan of your Between Friends cartoon and just can’t wait to see how you will have Tamara deal with her relationship with Jake. I once was a ‘Tamara’ and, with the great help of a ‘Maeve,’ left my abusive husband and regained my self-esteem.”
NAME-DROPPING & TALE-BEARING
The Cost of Doing Business
A Little Insight from Jim Scancarelli (Gasoline Alley), who wrote me as follows:
Last November I needed to order more India ink so I called the Dr. Martin’s company in Colorado. The good doctor wasn’t in, so I spoke with his nurse and put in my request for a quart of Black Star (Matte) ink.
“We don’t sell it in quarts,” was her retort, “but we do have it in 32 ounce containers.”
Hmmm. I’ve never been too swift when it comes to higher mathematics, but it seems I remember 32 ounces being a quart—or is it a pound? A pound is a pound the world around or the world is round or something equally baffling.
I was informed that 32 ounces of black liquid would cost me $85 plus freight.
“Wow!” I said, “and I thought going to the gas pump was bad.”
“Do you want the ink or not?” said the nurse.
Needless to say, I indeed purchased this black gold for $85 plus postage.
“You’re a cartoonist, aren’t you?” she asked.
When I wanted to know how she knew, she said only cartoonists buy the ink in bulk.
Now in July 2008, Marcus Hamilton (who draws the daily Dennis the Menace) called the Dr. Martin company to order a quart. The price is now $185 plus freight for the slimy pen juice. Marcus bought a pint. Hope he didn’t drink it.
Surely this wouldn’t come under the heading of price gouging? How could it—India ink isn’t a petroleum product is it?
I dread to think what the cost will be when the quart (excuse me—32 ounces) runs dry.
More About Oranges. At her blog, Hillary ??? explains why her strip is called Rhymes with Orange: “My aunt once told me that no single word in the English language rhymes with the word ‘orange.’ I chose the title to show the singularity of the strip’s perspective, one that highlights the trials of my own life and that of my friends. I do not think these trials are traditionally represented on the comics page. ‘Door hinge’ is the closest rhyme, but I don’t think it quite makes the grade. By the way, nothing rhymes with ‘silver,’ ‘purple,’ or ‘month.’
Postscript: After reading ‘Ask Murphy’ in Parade magazine, a million people wrote to tell me that the obscure biological term ‘sporange’ rhymes with ‘orange.’ I don’t care. However, a brilliant young Smith College student informed me that the word ‘sporange’ was created by a man who incorrectly conjugated the Latin verb. The word he should have come up with was ‘sporangia.’ So there.”
THAT NAST BOOK
I finally got my copy of Doomed by Cartoon: How Cartoonist Thomas Nast and the New York Times Brought Down Boss Tweed and His Ring of Thieves (330 8x11-inch pages, paperback, $19.95 or less from Amazon.com) by John Adler “with” Draper Hill. I don’t know anything about Adler, but Draper, an editoonist retired from the Detroit News, and I have been friends for years. He is without quibble the world’s foremost authority on Thomas Nast. His involvement in this tome was probably to fact-check Adler’s text; and Adler could not have better back-up. The book is not a biography but a history of Tweed’s fate at Nast’s hands. At first blush, the organization of the volume seems a little chaotic.
The text is chronological, but Adler spends no little time filling in the background details before he gets to the foreground, resulting, occasionally, in some confusion. The first section of the book introduces us to “The Bad Guys,” then “The Good Guys,” followed by “Setting the Stage,” with segments on “Young Bill Tweed” and “Young Thomas Nast.” The text is short in these parts of the book and nearly cryptic: sometimes in connection with a particular personage, references are made to situations or events that we haven’t yet been made aware of so we can scarcely assess properly the role the personage plays. These sections are illustrated with Nast cartoons, some of which appear in the book several times, often with a footnote referring us to the other pages upon which the same cartoon is printed. The implication to be drawn from this arrangement is that the reader is expected to flip back and forth from the volume’s early pages to later pages in order to assemble all the pertinent facts as he reads. The reader, in other words, is expected to do the work usually accomplished by an author. But after experimenting with the operandi of Adler’s modus, I decided I could just as well ignore the foreshadowing references and plunge ahead, page after page in the usual fashion, for an initial reading of the history. Later, if I needed to assemble all the pertinent aspects of a given episode or cartoon, I could flip back and forth from one reference to another. In short, it seems the book’s organization is intended to assist the serious scholar in digging up every aspect of New York’s corrupt history as it pertains to a Nast cartoon. Helpful to the historian, no doubt; but confusing to the casual reader of history who wants straightforward chronological narrative.
A “Cartoon Index” helpfully lists all the Nast cartoons of the period by date, giving the various page numbers upon which they are reproduced in the book. Sometimes only portions of a cartoon are used in subsequent sections; these secondary appearances in the book are labeled “extracts.” Unhappily, the reproduction of the cartoons is uneven. All are printed in what Adler probably supposes is “black and white,” but the “white” is often “gray” as if the cartoon were reproduced from some secondary source, a bad Xerox copy perhaps, made on the first generation of the photocopier. Very few of the cartoons have pure “white” backgrounds although in many the grayness is much less discernible. Fortunately, the paper, while not as glossy as some publishers prefer for reproducing artwork, is just a step away from slick—“matt finish,” I think is the term—so the lines do not “spread” as they would on more conventional stock.
The volume is unquestionably the last word on Nast and the Tweed Ring—exhaustive in both detail and comprehensiveness—my quibbles to the apparent contrary notwithstanding.
WORKS": NEW BILL LEGALIZES THEFT
By Ted Rall, AAEC President
(No, Ted Rall isn’t the only news we have this posting, but the following seems too important to postpone until next time.—RCH)
The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) is dismayed to learn that unscrupulous members of the U.S. Senate have taken advantage of Americans' focus on the nation's financial crisis in order to pass controversial legislation that threatens the livelihoods of everyone who relies on copyright for a living. Deploying perfidious secrecy reminiscent of the circumstances of the passage of the USA-Patriot Act, the Senate passed S. 2913, also called the Shaw Bentley Orphan Works Act of 2008 ("Orphan Works Act") on Friday, October 3, while the national media was focused on the mortgage meltdown bailout proposal. A similar bill is being considered by the House of Representatives.
The owner of a store notices a man shoplifting her merchandise. She calls the police, who arrest the man. But they don't take him to jail. Instead, they let him keep the stuff he stole. All he has to do is pay the retail price. They let him go.
Crazy? You bet. But that's exactly what Congress wants to do to intellectual property. If a cartoonist or another artist catches someone stealing his or her work, the thief gets to keep it. All he has to do is pay retail.
Sponsors of the Orphan Works Act claim they want to make it easier for libraries and researchers to reproduce intellectual property whose creators or copyright holders are difficult to find. The practical effect of the Orphan Works Act, however, would be far more sinister. If signed into law, it would create an irresistible incentive for unscrupulous individuals and companies to violate copyrighted material, including the political cartoons created by our members.
"The bill enables users to exhibit orphan works if, after a thorough and documented good-faith search, they are unable to locate the copyright owners," reports the Deseret News of Salt Lake City. And there's the rub. A "good-faith search" is so broadly defined as to be meaningless.
Let's say, for example, that a book publisher wanted to print an editorial cartoon in a history textbook. Currently a typical reprint fee for such use is $250. Under current copyright law, a publisher who gets caught using such work without permission would be liable for three times the standard rate—in this case, $750. A judge could order the books impounded. If the cartoonist had to hire a lawyer, a judge could make the violator pay the attorney's fees. These provisions deter most would-be copyright violators.
the Orphan Works Act, the deterrent effect of punishment would all
but vanish. If the cartoonist learned about the infringement and
tracked down its perpetrator, all the publisher would have to do to
avoid the triple penalty would be to claim that it engaged in an
as-yet undefined "good-faith search." In the cited example,
the aggrieved cartoonist would receive $250. He or she would have no
way to remove the image from a book that he or she might find
In the unlikely case that an artist were lucky enough to learn that his or her work had effectively been stolen, he or she would only be entitled to "the amount on which a willing buyer and willing seller in the positions of the infringer and the owner of the infringed copyright would have agreed with respect to the infringing use of the work immediately before the infringement began." But this is no different than the storeowner who catches a shoplifter. A victim of theft is NOT a "willing seller."
Laws that encourage illegal behavior are bad laws. We hope the Senate and President Bush will join us, at least 60 other organizations representing writers and artists, and millions of Americans employed in the creative arts, in opposing the Orphan Works Act. —Ted Rall, AAEC President (Contact: Ted Rall, email@example.com)
THE LIGHTS ARE GOING OUT FOR FAMED CARICATURIST
One of the supremely ironic tragedies in life unfolds when a highly gifted person loses his or her gift and is obliged to live on without it. Musical genius Ludwig Beethoven lost his hearing, suffering a severe form of tinnitus, a “ringing” in his ears that made it difficult for him to perceive and appreciate music. He spent his last 13 years totally deaf. And H.L. Mencken, whose life was very nearly defined in an acerbic verbal mastery, was struck by cerebral thrombosis and lost the ability to read and write. He could speak, but often the syllables he uttered did not make themselves into words. He spent the last seven years of his life, like Beethoven, unable to do the thing that had given his life its meaning. In both cases, the afflicted were entirely aware of what was happening to them and lived on as perfect witnesses to their own dissolution. And now we have another to add to this short, sad roster: David Levine—the storied caricaturist of the last half century whose acid penpoint skewered authors and artists, politicians and monarchs, celebrities and recluses, and whose crosshatched style re-established a classic mode of drawing for publication—is slowly going blind. Or almost blind: it’s macular degeneration, which does not destroy sight so much as it destroys the ability to do anything that depends upon the ability to see. Like drawing caricatures.
A few months ago, the perhaps flamboyant editor of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter (who managed through the sheer narcissism of his role as roue around town to devastate a favorite dining destination of mine in New York by converting it to a chic evening eatery), pondered the looming twenty-fifth anniversary of his magazine and solicited ideas for how to celebrate. Finally, smitten by indecision, he realized, he said, “that anniversaries are really best left to those celebrating them. ... In the end, I realized that if I were your typical Vanity Fair reader, what I’d like is a regular issue of the magazine, only better.” One of the better things in the magazine lately is in the November issue, wherein Carter published David Margolick’s gently admiring and poignant review of Levine’s life and work. You can find the whole thing at the Vanity Fair website. Some of it, I’m quoting from here, in italics when appropriated wholesale.
Levine achieved his name and a livelihood by decorating the pages of the New York Review of Books with caricatures that distilled the essence of his subject’s personality more acutely than any photograph or biographical text. An early collection of his literary caricatures has the prehensile appellation Pens and Needles, a sagacious and accurate description of his work. His is a pointed and prickly art, poking and prodding his subjects into absurdly recognizable images. Levine assaulted his victims in a flurry of crosshatching, thereby yoking the tintypical mannerisms of a bygone artistic age with a modern satirical sensibility. I first encountered his drawings in Esquire where they enlivened the magazine’s opening columns (Dwight MacDonald, if I recall). Initially, I didn’t see the satire: I saw only a nostalgic vision of engraved antiquity, big heads atop tiny bodies suffused with hachuring (a technique the young Levine found masterfully performed in V.T. Hamlin’s Alley Oop). Levine still thinks the novelty of his early work arises almost entirely from the big heads with tiny bodies. Indeed, at first, that’s all there was. Then telling details began to insinuate themselves into the pictures. Isaac Newton with a slice of apple pie on his head, its syrupy filling slowly running down his face. Lewis Carroll carrying a vintage black-box camera with its tripod pedestal. Beatrice Potter with a long rat-like tail draped over her arm like a shawl. Bernard Shaw whose forelock, distinctively parted in the middle, has become the cap-and-bells headgear of the court jester. Dandified Max Beerbohm, boater tilted over his eyes, sharpening a pencil over his drawing board. Spiro Agnew as a rotten pear, worms crawling in and out. George Wallace with his head on backward, captioned, by an editor, “Keeps the Past.” Dwight Eisenhower sitting on a golf tee.
The quaint nostalgia of the visual was comforting: it softened the sharp edge of the satirical insights. You have to inspect some of the drawings carefully in order to find the tell-tale detail that flayed the victim, laying his foibles bare before the world. Levine’s technique is not the sledgehammer of the political cartoonist: it is the scalpel of the surgeon, the poniard of the assassin, slipped slyly between the ribs with a subtlety almost unnoticeable. You have to know something about the subject to comprehend and appreciate the nuance in Levine’s attack. The Newton legend holds that he was inspired to formulate the theory of gravity by watching an apple fall. Carroll’s passion for young girls was revealed by his photographs of them. Eisenhower was long viewed as a golfer rather than as the nation’s chief executive.
Margolick sums up Levine’s singular achievement: What sets Levine’s drawings apart is not just the technical artistry but also the wit. ‘He was the most brilliant visual punster that ever existed,’ says Edward Sorel. Detesting much of 20th-century art—he is as conservative stylistically as he is radical politically—he drew Andy Warhol as Alfred E. Neuman, showed Picasso dumping a truckload of Picassos, and made the top of Claes Oldenburg’s head a garbage-can lid. (After he depicted Jackson Pollock urinating squiggles onto a canvas, he says, the Review stopped assigning him modern artists. The Review’s co-founder and editor Robert Silvers replies: ‘Certainly not consciously,’ adding that most stories about artists were in fact illustrated by their own work.) Monica Lewinsky smokes a cigar. Hemingway stands on an animal rug with a Hemingway head. Patton is squirreled away in a giant holster. Kenneth Starr is an ayatollah. Osama bin Laden is a long, bushy beard. Dan Quayle is a puny Sword of Damocles hanging over George H. W. Bush.
A caricature of Lyndon Johnson is probably Levine’s most famous work of all: a takeoff on the famous photograph of Johnson lifting his shirt to show the incision from his recent gallbladder surgery, which Levine transformed into the even more famous image of Johnson lifting his shirt to reveal a map of Vietnam. Time once claimed that that drawing, which simultaneously captured Johnson’s crudity and how indelibly the war had scarred both him and the country, did more to undermine his presidency than any photograph. Johnson biographer Robert Caro says he is asked more about Levine’s depiction of Johnson than any other topic. ‘The photograph assaulted people, and the cartoon embedded it in the American consciousness,’ he says.
If anything, Levine was even harder on Nixon, and considerably more often. There is Nixon as Captain Queeg, steel balls in his hand, and Nixon with tapes spilling out of his trouser bottoms. There is Nixon as the Godfather, Nixon with Nguyen Van Thieu biting into his leg like a terrier, Nixon with Spiro Agnew and with Mao Zedong. There is Nixon as a fetus, Nixon kissing Brezhnev, Nixon manipulating a Lieutenant William Calley hand puppet. (The tally of 66 Nixon images does not count the numerous Nixons he did for other publications; Newsweek editors once discussed whether he should file down Nixon’s fangs.) For few characters was Levine’s distinctive crosshatching better suited: with it, he managed to add several hours to Nixon’s famed five-o’clock shadow.
Critics praised Levine for resurrecting a moribund art and capturing the Zeitgeist. ‘They are wickedly intelligent and shamelessly unfair,’ Hilton Kramer, of The New York Times, wrote of an exhibition of his caricatures in 1968. ‘Future historians of the sixties will find in these images a reliable guide to the bitter feelings and angry criticism that now fill every corner of our political life.’ One week the previous January, Levine had drawn covers for both Time (L.B.J. as Lear) and Newsweek (five Republican presidential contenders). A host of would-be Levines appeared. ‘I have never imitated Levine,’ one declared. ‘I have burglarized him.’
Levine’s first love—perhaps, he might say, his only love—is painting, watercolors mostly. “Some, like Sorel, consider his paintings his finest work of all. Hanging from and stacked against the walls of the apartment he shares with his second wife, Kathy Hayes, is four decades of his output, mostly small paintings. Many are of his favorite subject: Coney Island. What better way to study humanity than observing them half nude on a beach, all posing for him? Many others are of garment workers: pressers and cutters and finishers, muscular and sweaty, beleaguered and dignified. All of the characters, even the women bent over their sewing machines, are really him, he says. Those paintings are as tender and affectionate as his caricatures are withering—Levine reserved all of his respect and pity for common folks—and of all his artwork are clearly what mattered, and matter, to him most. The caricatures, by contrast, were commissions. They paid the bills and, Levine says, gave him a chance to unload. Few of them hang at his house, though he’s fond of them too. ‘I love my species,’ he says. ‘I love looking at their faces.’”
Levine would probably rather paint than draw caricatures. Many cartoonists paint in their spare time, thinking of themselves as weekend painters, taking a short vacation from their livelihood. But for Levine, the reverse is the truth. Early in his career, he sold paintings but couldn’t sell his cartoons. In an interview with Gary Groth, he said: “I used to say that painting was my way to make a living and to support my hobby, which was cartooning. It was a really weird twist” (The Comics Journal Library: Drawing the Line).
In 1963, Levine was doing caricatures for Esquire as the New York Review of Books approached the launch pad, and its co-founder, Barbara Epstein, came looking for Levine. According to Levine, interviewed by Christine Smallwood in The Nation, June 26, 2008, it was the art director at Esquire who led Epstein to Levine. Epstein had asked the Esquire art director to design the cover of the Review. “All that big type, big woodblock type, was his idea,” Levine said. Since then, 45 years later, Levine has produced more than 3,800 caricatures for the magazine. “Because Silvers and Epstein, always wanted fresh images, Levine got to draw many people repeatedly, ever refining and updating. He was at it long enough to engrave wrinkles into W. H. Auden, follow Philip Roth’s retreating hairline, trace Susan Sontag going gray. Type in any name at the ‘David Levine Gallery’ on the Review’s Web site [nybooks.com] and you can assemble something sounding like an olde English Christmas carol. There are 66 Richard Nixons, 41 Lyndon Johnsons, 23 Ronald Reagans, 16 Sigmund Freuds, 14 Norman Mailers, 13 Charles de Gaulles, 12 Jimmy Carters, 11 Adolf Hitlers, 10 William Shakespeares, nine Jean-Paul Sartres, eight Bertrand Russells, seven Menachem Begins, six Ernest Hemingways, five Marcel Prousts, four Ayatollah Khomeinis, three Bernard Berensons, two Elvis Presleys, and one … well, there are hundreds and hundreds of those. And lots of what ran in the Review isn’t even there, to say nothing of what appeared elsewhere. David Leopold, a curator who has spent the past three years cataloguing Levine’s work, estimates that only half of Levine’s caricatures were actually done for the Review. Thus far he’s found more than 1,000 done for Esquire, almost 100 for Time, 71 for The New Yorker, and lots of others for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, New York, and a host of oddball publications.”
Margolick continued: “The durability of those Levine depicted, plus the unique insight with which he drew them, guarantees the immortality of his works. ‘Nobody will want to publish a biography of any of the people he’s done without including one of his pictures,’ said Sorel. ‘People will want to reproduce his stuff forever.’”
For over forty years, Levine’s Review routine scarcely varied. Every other Tuesday, a messenger from the magazine would deliver to the artist an envelope containing copies of the articles he was to illustrate and photographs of his subjects. “Always, Levine would read the pieces before setting pen to paper. Some, particularly those on politics, he grasped instantly and tackled with relish because of their comic possibilities.” Because he thinks himself uneducated in such matters as musical theory, poetry, and physics, Levine would read up on them, “scouring the texts for ideas. Then he studied the photographs, looking for whatever element—nose, eyes, chin, hair, glasses, head—captured a person’s essence. Sometimes, what most enthralled him emerged only as he drew.” After penciling a satisfactory portrait, Levine inked it, using a Gilot 102. “Never was there a caption. ’If I can’t do it the way Charlie Chaplin did it, words are not going to help,’ he says. Each illustration took him a couple of hours.” On Tuesday, the messenger showed up again and picked up the finished art to take it to the Review offices.
Political cartooning, in Levine’s view, is a different kind of art. “There is pressure on political cartoonists to do five, six and seven drawings a week,” he told Smallwood. “I never had anything like that as a pressure. I could take time to really look it over and think about it, read the articles and so on. The political cartoonists don’t get a chance. The headlines are saying this and this about so-and-so, and you have to come up with something which is approved by an editor. I almost never had to get an approval. In forty years, I may have run into a disagreement with the Review maybe two times.”
Believing that power corrupts, Levine went after politicians mercilessly. “However pejorative his caricatures of politicians were, he maintains that they were always designed to be constructive: by making the powerful funny-looking, he theorized, he might encourage some humility or self-awareness. ... Conversely, Levine admits to going easy on anyone belonging to a group that had been historically disadvantaged, such as women and blacks. ... Rather than depict Eleanor Roosevelt as the usual ugly duckling, he turned her into a swan. One woman he did not indulge was Margaret Mead. He bared her breasts—to make up, he explains, for all those native women she exposed in various anthropological texts over the years.”
One of Levine’s renditions of Henry Kissinger was spiked by the Review. Levine pictured Kissinger naked “beneath an American-flag bedspread, gleefully ravaging a woman. Little of her is visible save her head, which also happens to be a globe. It ‘just didn’t seem what we should do,’ Silvers says. Levine took it to Victor Navasky, then editor of The Nation, who published it. That in turn outraged feminists on Navasky’s staff, who complained that Levine had made the world a woman and, by showing her grabbing the bed by the mattress, suggested that she might be enjoying herself. Navasky called a meeting and invited Levine, who only inflamed things more. ‘I said, I wanted to say that he was screwing the world, and as far as I know, approximately 99 percent of the world screws that way.’”
Levine delighted in incorporating the Kissinger cartoon into his slide show, which he showed whenever called upon to make a presentation. Regaling Groth with the Fucking Kissinger cartoon experience, Levine said: “They wanted to know—‘Why is she clutching the bed? Is that passion?’ I said, ‘She’s being attacked here! She’s holding on!’”
At times, the Review did ask Levine to tone things down. ... all those swastikas, for instance, that Levine embedded into his work, like Hirschfeld’s Nina’s. The Review had Levine remove them from Clint Eastwood’s clothing and the cleft of George Wallace’s chin. ‘We sometimes thought the swastikas were inappropriate,’ recalls Silvers. ‘It was sometimes a question of detecting them. Someone would say, Hey, there’s a swastika!” Another time, “a prostrate black man over whom Newt Gingrich leapfrogged in 1995 was airbrushed out of the finished product. (That was kinder than Levine’s depiction of Gingrich as an elephant’s rear end, the anus doubling as his mouth, done for Playboy.)
As Levine’s eyesight blurred, “he could no longer see very clearly without strong light and magnification, or rely upon his hand: the lines that had always been his friends, the spare, crisp ones that defined someone’s shape, and the elaborate crosshatchings that gave him soul, he could no longer control. ... He abandoned pen and ink for pencil, which, as he puts it, ‘was more forgiving if I made a mistake.’ But the results were plain enough. For the first time—except for those very few instances when it had been too tart for the publication’s taste—the Review rejected his work.” His last original drawing for the magazine was published in April 2007. The Review continues to use his caricatures, recycling them from its vast Levine inventory; but the new caricatures are by someone else.
Levine believes the Review has fired him. In fact, for the rest of the year he remains under contract with the publication, which pays him around $4,800 a month (down from the more than $12,000 he once earned), essentially for the use of his old drawings. Whether or not it is renewed, he receives neither health insurance nor a pension. His friends feel vehemently that the Review owes him something better than that. “He is the visual trademark of that magazine,” said Byron Dobell, a former editor at Esquire and, for more than four decades, a member of the weekly painting group Levine still runs with the portraitist Aaron Shikler. “They fed off his drawings for years. Let’s say he goes completely blind They have no further obligations to him … ? It’s as if Disney decided, “Let’s throw Disney overboard. He’s an old man. We don’t need him.”
Jules Feiffer also believes the magazine has treated Levine badly. “The Review’s ‘callous disregard’ for Levine, he wrote Silvers in February 2007, was ‘stunningly at odds’ with its long tradition of ‘intellectual conscience and decency,’ and was tactically unwise to boot. ‘You are handing your enemies a gift,’ he warned. ‘What fun The Weekly Standard, The National Review and The Wall Street Journal are going to have at your expense when this affair goes public.’ Certainly, he concluded, ‘the greatest caricaturist of the last half of the Twentieth Century deserves better from you.’”
Said Margolick: “Even friends who concede that Levine’s latest drawings are no longer worthy of the Review criticize its handling of him, which they consider insensitive from the start. Levine neither asked for nor received any stock in the publication when he went to work there, for instance, so that when Rea Hederman bought it for $4.5 million in 1984 he reaped none of the profits. Friends say Levine never realized how indispensable he was there, and was almost pathologically unable to stand up for himself. Levine agrees. It goes with his fear of authority, he says.”
Meanwhile, the magazine’s masthead still lists Levine as “staff artist”; to both Silvers and Hederman, any suggestion to the contrary is preposterous. “I think of him as someone who’s done marvelous things for us and might do some again,” Silvers says.
Levine’s son Matthew says his father isn’t likely “to wind up on the soup lines somewhere, but his income has been dramatically reduced.” He doesn’t fault the magazine as much as others do, saying “that what seems like insensitivity is really more confusion: the people there just aren’t built for such awkward situations. But the hurt, and the financial impact, are real.” This may be simply a politic posture: if there’s hope that the magazine may do something for its star performer, it wouldn’t help to snarl at the hand that might proffer financial provender.
A series of heart problems, with all the customary stents and bypasses and pacemakers, knocked Levine off stride even before his eyesight did. “I haven’t settled whether I am angry or I am just saying, Well, it was time anyway,” he says. He’s much more fired up about the conditions of the poor than he is about his own. Still, he says, “They could solve the whole thing with a pension.”
But Levine is proud, Margolick writes, even hypersensitive—when the Review recently sent him a wristwatch featuring one of his Shakespeare caricatures, he misconstrued it as a parting gift—and refuses to send in anything on spec. And the magazine, which continues to sell David Levine mouse pads, David Levine postcards, and David Levine reproductions—from which Levine derives only token royalties—is too timid or too pragmatic or maybe too considerate to ask. So the awkward pas de deux continues. Such is combat between habitual noncombatants.
In the meantime, Levine tries to keep busy. A book of his presidential drawings will be published this fall [on Election Day, by Fantagraphics—entitled American Presidents with a foreword by Bill Moyer], with exhibits in New York and Los Angeles. There’ll also be a Levine show in Toronto. Whatever his personal circumstances, he seeks nobody’s pity. ‘How old am I?’ he asks. ‘Eighty-one. Eighty-one! That’s 20 years past my parents! I feel that I’ve lived the golden life. I’ve done everything I want to do. If I can keep doing it, even a part of it, that’s fun.’ And that he hopes to do. In fact, he’s planning an excursion soon. He’s going back to Coney Island, an easel and paintbrushes in hand.
Rumpled might be the best way to describe David Levine. Rumpled and round. And somewhat stoop-shouldered and looking just a little sheepish or shy, or worried, as if, maybe, he had wondered into an exclusive soiree without an invitation and hoped no one would discover him. But appearances, as we’ve all been taught, are deceptive. In Levine’s case, despite the hangdog expression on his face, he has opinions that are firmly gripped and forcefully expressed. And not only in pictures.
Asked by Smallwood if there were any artists today that he particularly disliked, Levine said: “Mostly whatever they’re presenting as people drawn by people in The New Yorker. I think they’ve let down the barrier of quality, and it is just terrible. Sometimes funny ideas, but I do not understand what they call cartoons anymore.”
As for the controversy over the Danish Dozen: “It’s basically very simple for me,” Levine said. “Anybody should be able to say anything they damn well please. Anybody can criticize it, too. But to threaten, these things with murdering somebody—the world should stand up suddenly and say, No.”
At the convention of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) in 2000, National Rifle Association (NRA) President Charlton Heston spoke, clenching his teeth and ranting on about the right to bear arms, rifles in particular, in his hot, live hands. At one point, responding to a question from the floor, Heston attempted to established his bonafides as a humanitarian by telling us all that he'd marched with Martin Luther King Jr. The next day Levine was on a panel and during a slack moment in the ensuing Q&A, he recalled Heston's story about marching with King and said: “For all of Heston’s self-proclaimed friendship with Martin Luther King, did he ever ask himself how King died—and by what instrument?” Levine’s satire isn't only in the pictures.
Annual Stock-taking and Bean Counting
For the record, here’s where I repeat the Essential Information from the Rabbit Habit Alert wherein we reported the year’s production here at the Rancid Raves Intergalactic Wurlitzer. I’m repeating it here just so I can find it next fall when I start looking up the production records of previous years.
In our fifth year, from November 2007 through October 2008, we posted a total of 606 pages of Rancid Raves (averaging 50 pages a month—exactly last year’s tally), plus 119 pages of Hindsight (an average of 10 pages a month). What other magazine generates 60 pages of comics-related (mostly) news and reviews and in-depth articles every month for a mere $1.32 a month?
We (Jeremy Lambros, my webmaster and I) produced 19 opuses of Rants & Raves in the last twelve months and posted 12 Hindsight (“historical”) articles. Our contract specifies approximately bi-weekly issues, and we did somewhat better than that: we occasionally missed on the frequency, but we posted something for you at least twice a month—at least one R&R and one Hindsight—and, in many months, three times, sometimes even four times. Lambros, incidentally, is a cartoonist as well as a webmaster. He does a single-panel gag cartoon about talking household utensils called Domestic Abuse; it appears Tuesdays and Thursdays at GoComics.com. And for some years, he did a half-page comic strip for Disney Adventures, Level Up, about computer geeks. It’s available for perusal at levelupkids.com but is no longer in print because Disney Adventures ceased last year about this time, insufficient ad sales.
By the way, we call this R&R enterprise an online magazine, not a blog. Blogs, as I understand them, are like diaries or journals; a magazine, like Rants & Raves, offers discrete articles on different subjects. And that’s what we do. We divide the articles into departments (News [“Nous R Us”], Book Reviews (“Book Marquee”), Newspaper Comics Vigil, Graficity [Graphic Novels], and Funnybook Fan Fare, all directly engaged in comics, plus a few trimmings like favorite quotations and reports on the oddest doings around (Civilization’s Last Outpost), but they’re still articles, not journal musings.
During the last twelve-month, we did long pieces on Ted Key and the perpetual Hazel, Ed Stein’s Denver Square, the so-called “satire” of The New Yorker’s Obama cover, Jules Feiffer and Explainers, ethics for editorial cartoonists and long reviews of David Berona’s Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels, the Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year and the Best Political Cartoons of the Year, Jack Cole’s Betsy and Me, the graphic novel Blue Pills, Bob Levine’s book on Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester, the “Persepolis” movie, Growing Old with B.C., Warren Ellis’ prose novel Crooked Little Vein, The Art of Oliver Hurst, Paul Conrad’s autobiography (amply illustrated), the biography of Jackie Ormes (the first African American woman cartoonist), Arguing the Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium, Mark Evanier’s Jack Kirby, various volumes of The Complete Terry and the Pirates, Comic Arf, Berenstains at Child’s Play, Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles, Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, and lots of comic books and news hither and yon.
And in the Hindsight department, our long-form essay/historical section, last year we did profiles of editoonist Pat Bagley, Tumbleweeds’ T.K. Ryan, Emmy Lou/Bobby Sox’s Marty Links, Gordo’s Gus Arriola, Jack Kirby, Sergio Aragones, Garfield’s Jim Davis, Playboy’s first cartoonist Hugh Hefner, and pioneers James Swinnerton, Eugene “Zim” Zimmerman, and Ollie Harrington. Also in Hindsight, we examined the history of Howard the Duck and the illustrators of Wind in the Willows. Surely, that’s enough plugging for this year.
the flip tone herewith, we’re not bragging: we’re merely
hoping to demonstrate having provided the value you bargained for
when you subscribed. The quantity anyhow; about the quality, you must
be the judge. Thus endeth our 233rd foray into the digital ether.
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